Short Story: The Good Soviet Who Couldn't Wait To Get Wi-Fi

July 29, 2019

I was doing a clear-out of my old documents and found this. I'd forgotten all about it. It's a story I wrote three-and-a-half-years ago, the week after my Grandad died. I don't know why I never put it anywhere. I just read it back and I think it's really good. It's just a stream-of-consciousness of what I was thinking about at the time, which was Soviet Russia and John Martyn. I never read it back even after writing it at the time, and I haven't edited it. I miss my grandparents.

 

The Good Soviet Who Couldn't Wait To Get Wi-Fi

 

Pavel was a good Soviet citizen who couldn't wait to get wi-fi, even at the expense of any sense of familial duty. His village was a remote little handful of barns and churches way out in the Urals, if that's what they were called at the time – the writer of this story has been reading a good deal of historical analysis of the KGB's Literary Archive and general appraisals of the history of Soviet literature and censorship during the 20th century, so certain elements of this story will contain the earthy grit of authenticity while others are things he plain couldn't be bothered to research in the naïve but empassioned belief that research is the enemy of true self-expression. Therefore, quite whether the Urals were known as the Urals at the time this story is set, or whether they’d been renamed with some sort of special Soviet name will remain open to conjecture and to reader feedback. All we need to know, really, is that it's a tiny remote village in one of the snowiest and most remote parts of Soviet Russia. Maybe the Kolyma region, although that was one of the largest parts of the Gulag archipelago so maybe not that (see? I know what I’m talking about).

On this particular morning, Pavel sat gormlessly stirring his soup, staring glumly at the blank screen of his iPod. He hadn't been able to listen to John Martyn in weeks, as there was of course no electricity out here in the village, what with it being 1921. As such, he would have to go months at a time without listening to any John Martyn until either one of his rare journeys down to Petrograd with Grandma where if he was lucky he might get half an hour to crouch at a charge point or, if they got lucky during the long winter, perhaps a travelling Apple genius would get lost and wander into town, dragging behind him his wooden handcart loaded with portable chargers and other sleek goodies. He would normally be happy to give Pavel a few days' worth of battery life in exchange for basic bed and board, and then he could have a few days of feeling truly himself, chopping wood with his headphones in and happily head-bopping along to Some People Are Crazy, or perhaps putting on his best fur overcoat and making the long day's walk over the ridge into the woods and getting lost in there while listening to Small Hours. Whatever he felt like doing, Pavel would do it. Whatever he felt like listening to, Pavel would listen to. But only as long as the battery lasted. Then he would fall into a desperate lethargy, a stubborn unwillingness to engage in social activities or open himself up to a single creative outlet. He would become, to all extents and purposes, as still and dysfunctional as a dead man until the next burst of electricity would come his way.

Of course, none of Pavel's family or neighbours had any idea what electricity was – on this particular morning, though, he had heard whispers of a plan, the significance of which he simply had to impart to his nearest and dearest. Grandma stood over the fire-pit in the centre of the room, over which hung a big black pot full of delightful rice pudding, which she was stirring with her famous big wooden spoon, the talk of the town.

“The senior Soviet committees are planning to wire up the entire country,” said Pavel, tearing his gaze away from his iPod screen. “They're going to electrify every town, every household.”

“Not here,” said Grandma, stirring her pudding with a stiff arm, “We've no need of any of that jiggery-pokery here,”

“It's true, Grandma,” said Pavel, sulkily. “Comrade Lenin is electrifying the entire nation!”

“You can say that again,” chuckled Grandma, momentarily forgetting that she didn't know what electricity was and therefore had no way of understanding her own joke, totally at the expense of the narrative in favour of a quick gag.

“It's true, Grandma,” said Pavel. “They're going to harness the power of lightning, itself an electrified force like the October Revolution, and spread it throughout the country. Apparently they're going to build a power plant down by the well. The spirit of the October Revolution transformed from hope into matter!”

“What do we want rainbows coming down cables into our homes for anyway, Pavel? What would your old Grandma want to do with a rainbow in the kitchen? It's nearly time for rice pudding, anyway.”

“It's not rainbows, Grandma, it's lightning.”

“That's what I said, rainbows. Wrapped up small and spat down cables right into our homes. I've heard all about it, and we've never needed it before.”

“But the world is on the brink of change, Grandma, that's what the revolution was all about! This will put power into the hands of the many! Why else did we wrest it from the hands of the few?”

“I just want to be allowed to carry on cooking RICE PUDDING, in capital letters. I know what this is all about, anyway,” Grandma continued, the spoon now standing up on its own in the pudding as she started to do her calanetics.

“What's that?”

“You're obsessed with that little box of yours. You just want to listen to more John Martyn because you were just getting into Grace And Danger and you want to impress that girl in the next village because she prefers the Phil Collins-y stuff he did in the 80s.” Pavel momentarily grimaced at the memory of the fact that in order to woo the girl of his dreams he was having to pretend that Solid Air wasn't the man's best work, but then got back to the task in hand.

“It's not all about listening to John Martyn and trying to impress Sofya, Grandma. It's about making sure the revolution in which so many gave their lives to shift the balance of power in favour of...”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Grandma. “You want to fill up your iPod with rainbows so you can stroll into the next village singing Johnny Too Bad and jump her bones. But you're my grandson, and the most important thing is to eat up and get strong.” With that, she slapped a big dollop of rice pudding on his face and cartwheeled out of the kitchen without another word, as was her wont.

 

Three days later, Pavel had made the long walk over the mountains to the nearest hospital, where Grandad lay convalescing in bed while stout, dour nurses stood over him and took his blood pressure and tutted. He was not in a good way. Pavel was sat by his bedside, his iPod plugged into a set of little travel speakers and playing Big Muff (the sort of scuzzy, reggae-infused one from One World) and trying to think of something to say. Grandad stared into the empty air ahead of him, focusing so hard on getting better that he had barely any energy left for conversation, though he did his best. Pavel had come in a day earlier than intended so he could sit hunched up in the foyer for an afternoon and charge his iPod so he had enough juice in it to play Grandad a few songs. It meant he wouldn't be able to listen to any himself for quite a while, but it was important to do something for other people every now and again. The speakers were a cheap set he'd bought just for picnics and outdoor parties and things, and produced an awfully tinny sound. Pavel winced at the sound of them, wishing he could have brought Grandad something better.

“I wouldn't keep on visiting, Pavel,” said Grandad, “It's a waste of your time.”

“It's just nice to see how you're getting on, Grandad.” said Pavel. “And to spend time with you.” Grandad nodded his old, old head.

“I don't know,” he said. “I don't know what's going to happen. Everything I do, it just falls flat.” With that, the effort of trying to speak too much started to sap the energy Grandad was putting into feeling better, and he started to feel worse and gave a rumbling, rattling cough and lapsed back into silence so he could feel better. Pavel shrugged and wandered over to the desk where one of the stout, dour nurses stood scowling. Her name was Praskovya Fyodorovna, because intertextuality is fun.

“Sorry, I just wondered if I could get your Wi-Fi password?” said Pavel. Wi-Fi was the thing he was most excited about with regard to the Soviet plan to electrify the entire nation, even the most remote towns. Information in the hands of the many. No more censorship of ideas, no more repression of fact, no more attempts to restrict what could and couldn't be expressed. Also it meant he could get Spotify Premium and start really delving into the more remote bits of John Martyn's discography and listen to the stuff he didn't really want to pay for outright, like Sapphire or Cooltide.

“It's RevolutionNotEvolution,” said Praskovya Fyodorovna, “but the Es are all 3s.” Pavel nodded his thanks and sat back down. Grandad let out a world-weary chuckle.

“The Es are all 3s,” he said. “All this technology nonsense, all this electricity nonsense. What will they think of next? Everybody's losing their minds. Such degradation. Such degradation. People have gone and lost all sense and started running away with themselves.”

“Wi-Fi's going to be massive, Grandad,” said Pavel, logging into the Wi-Fi network on his iPod, which the writer forgot to clarify was one of the newer ones that can access Wi-Fi, not an iPod Classic like the writer's own. “It's going to put information in the hands of the many. No more suppressions, no more arrests. Everybody's going to make it this time.” Grandad shook his old, old head.

“No,” he said. “No, it's only just beginning.” Silly old Grandad, thought Pavel, and he looked around and tried to trace the wires from the bulb hanging above the bed. Traced it round and round the ceiling, his eyeballs rolling in their sockets, until he finally traced it to a charge point on the wall. He thought about maybe ripping the wires from their sockets and uprooting them from their home in the ground and trailing them with him back over the frozen steppes, over the mountains, to the village and installing them in Grandma's house and bringing electricity to everyone. To Grandma, to Sofya, to all his neighbours, to Grandad too once he was well enough to come home. He would be the good little Soviet hero of his village, the local boy done good who brought power and information and ideas into the hands of the many, who turned the spirit of the October Revolution from hope into matter, who brought light and warmth to the homes of his neighbours. They could all sit round the electric fire and listen to Bless The Weather on proper speakers, a proper iPod dock maybe. Perhaps the head of the local Soviet Committee would give him a proper iPod dock as a reward. A boy can dream.

Anyway, after another twenty minutes or so Grandad still hadn't said anything so Pavel gently reached out and squeezed the old man's hand and then set out back across the snow to report back to Grandma.

 

That night, Grandad woke up at the stroke of midnight. The hospital was dark – they had only just been wired up themselves and the generators were so new it wasn't worth wasting them and keeping the lights lit all night. Grandad stared into the darkness and the empty air for a while and thought about how boring it was passing away his time lounging in a hospital bed in his winter years. Blow this, he thought to himself, Grandma's at home looking after the rice pudding all by herself. Let's take matters into our own hands. And with that, he swung his little old legs over the edge of the bed and shuffled into his slippers. He wrapped his flimsy little nightgown around him and headed for the door, stopping by the charge point as he passed it. He reached down, his old back aching like nobody's business, and wrapped his wiry hands around the wires and tugged them from the wall. Rainbows spilled out all over the hospital floor with a lovely glugging sound, bathing the whole ward in a spectrum of light, until Grandad jammed his thumb into the end of the tube and stoppered it up. He then stepped out into the cold night, the wind howling around him in his nightgown and slippers, and started the long, long walk over the frozen steppes and the snowy mountains, trailing the rainbow-filled cable behind him, dreaming of bringing warmth and light back into the homes of his family and his neighbours.

The next time Pavel visited Grandad, Paskovya Fyodorovna was much sweeter and more sympathetic and told him what had happened. Pavel went and sat in the foyer for a long, long time, his brand new iPod dock cradled in his hands, and hummed Spencer The Rover to himself, a cappella, for some hours. He sat there until the lights went out, and then he went home.

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